The Little Sweep creates opera


In England, it is symbol of a good luck when chimney sweep visits your house. It is a great honor to belong to this so-called glorious corporation, and the craft is carefully passed through generations. Unlike ‘bad old days’ when chimneys were too narrow, and temper was too stern. Masters-sweeps assigned the most dangerous tasks to their apprentices, recruiting them from orphans and poor between four and seven years old. These children usually ended up their short careers with severe injuries or even death caused by accidents.

‘Black boys’ were getting to the pages of Victorian sentimental novels at the time when some measures were already taken against this bad practice (in 1875 child labor was officially banned). However, much earlier, famous English poet William Blake shared heavy plight of these children ‘through the mouths of babes’:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

These exact lines from The Chimney Sweeper, a part of Songs of Innocence (1789) prompted an idea to Britten for his first opera for children (second poem with the same title from Songs of Experience, 1794 - was set to music as part of his song cycle Songs and Proverbs of William Blake).

Nevertheless - great news! - creators of opera The Little Sweep made an absolutely non-tragic ending. Britten, together with his permanent librettist Eric Crozier, who was Director in addition, awarded black boy with a more fortunate fate. Main hero - boy Sam - safely escapes seemingly destined miserable plight. Children pull him out of chimney, help him to hide, wash him and feed, and then send him to the place where better life awaits him.

Details of the plot are based on the surroundings of the composer’s life. First, it relates to a specific place - fishing village Aldeburgh in the county of Suffolk on the East shore of England. Britten was born not too far and lived there. In 1948 he organized his own festival there.

Characters from opera received their names from children and nephews of Fidelity, Countess of Cranbrook, who was the Head of the Board of trustees of the festival: Gay, Juliet, Sophie, Tina, Hugh, Johnny and Sam (novel was dedicated to them). Action took place around 1810 at the playroom of Iken Hall. Composer also shared some decoration pieces for performance from his own playroom - rocking horse Dobbin (workhorse). It belonged to his family (now it is a valuable artifact of Britten-Pears museum ‘Red House’).

In order to spark interest of local children and adults, performance was planned as interactive: audience should be taking part in it. First part - Let’s Make an Opera! - takes the form of a play in which the cast creates plot and rehearses for ‘Audience Songs’. Next, audience plays their own numbers in The Little Sweep. Eric Crozier did not publish lyrics for the first part explaining in foreword that he wants every director to write it from the scratch.

Obviously, The Little Sweep became children’s favorite in an instant. Just recently, it marked 70th anniversary, and it is still cheerfully marching on opera stage. It was staged twice on Chamber Stage under the name Let’s Make an Opera!. In 1979, when permanent Children’s group was founded (its founder and permanent master Elena Ozerova), performance was staged by Estonian director Arne Mikk, followed by Mikhail Kislyarov’s version in 2015.

Director Oleg Dolin. Photo by Pavel Rychkov.

New version of The Little Sweep was proposed by famous Moscow director Oleg Dolin. He focused attention on the second music part of ‘diptych’.

- This is very popular opera both in England, and in Russia. Everyone is well familiar with model British family, in which poor boy enters. Well, that is not going to happen!

It is not going to be a cozy world with fireplace and ladies wearing white bonnets. On a contrary, we will move into mysterious establishment hidden from outsiders. Something that reminds research institution for wonderful children with extraordinary skills. Except, they are not able to leave it by themselves.

We aimed to convey mystery of everything happening there through aesthetics of comics style ‘noir’; England of course remained main setting. Wonderful and extraordinary children are searched for around whole country. Headhunters are promised rewards. Of course, it becomes a lucrative business for some…

The little sweep also turns out to be an extraordinary child: he is capable to influence people around him in a particular way. People are irresistibly fond of him. When he enters the circle of new friends, his energy changes them and inspires to take actions. Sam’s escape gains a special meaning for super children: by saving him they are like saving themselves, as they all are also avidly dreaming of leaving this strange world to go to another, amazing and truly free world...But does it really exist? I think overcoming captivity, and pursue of freedom are the main themes of this opera. In addition, this is a really britten-style, theme of being different and child’s exclusion.

Listening to the music of this composer, I more and more ascertain in ambiguity. Joyful and merry, childish and serene on the surface, there are yet terror and many dissonances somewhere deep under the water, which you want to explore...And following Britten we only raise questions without giving answers to them, at least not clear ones. Let it be the task for the audience. This is the purpose of their direct and active involvement.